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Into the Widening Gyre: Social Marketing Meets Peak Oil (book review)

While reading Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman’s Marketing Metaphoria: What deep metaphors reveal about the minds of consumers, (MM), I recalled a healthcare consultant who told me, “You really should market peak oil, but you’ve got to give folks some good news to win them over.” I laughed and replied, “Are you kidding? I’m not selling whiter teeth.” Turning serious, I went on, “Most people react by saying, ‘This just can’t be true.’ They think scientists will invent a cheap and endless supply of energy and we’ll live happily ever after. And if you try to tell them about thermodynamics and ecological limits, they tune out or say, ‘but Tom Friedman says….’ So I see no way into most heads except through crisis.”

As I write this review a wave of graduate school marketing memories is washing over me, the most prominent Kottler and G. Zaltman’s 1971 classic paper introducing “social marketing,” which concerns not selling but how to introduce social change. Social marketing has been used in pubic health in conjunction with risk communication on such issues as air pollution, toxic waste, lead, pesticides, obesity, diabetes, drinking water, sanitation, asbestos removal, and so on. In pure form, then, traditional “marketing” is tied to the finances and benefits of the private firm, while “social marketing” aspires to introduce change and innovation promoting the public good.

I believe the insights in MM are critical to those of us who seek to create a sustainable world in the wake of peak oil, which I see as intimately connected to the fiscal/economic crisis and what E.O. Wilson calls the Bottleneck of ecological dilemmas. MM synthesizes in non-academic jargon a range of literature dealing with what social psychologist George Herbert Meade nearly a hundred years ago termed the fascinating interdependence of Mind, Self, and Society. Zaltman and Zaltman (ZZ) focus on metaphorical thinking, especially “Deep Metaphors,” which they argue a vast interdisciplinary scientific literature review shows

“…start developing at birth and are shaped by our social environment. In this sense they are innate capacities or propensities… They are deep because they operate largely unconsciously. They are metaphors because they re-present, or play around with, nearly everything we encounter. They unconsciously add, delete, and distort information while continuously giving us the impression that we engage our world exactly as it is.

“Equally important, deep metaphors capture what anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists call human universals, or near universals, the traits and behaviors found in nearly all societies.” (Pg. xvi)

To reiterate, metaphorical thinking is shorthand for understanding one thing in terms of another: “You sure got a whale of a bargain!” “That guy’s a creep!” “What a sweetheart!” ZZ extend this definition to include, “many forms of idiomatic, nonliteral expression or representations.” (Pg. xvi) Deep metaphors are a means to understanding, evaluation, judgment, and making sense of new, divergent or unfamiliar concepts and circumstances. This is, readers will note, similar to Kuhn’s concept of the paradigm and Foucault’s discussion of the episteme, a comparison to which we will return.

ZZ point to seven prominent and cross-culturally present, or universal, deep metaphors. If understood, rank-ordered or appropriately contextualized, these deep metaphors are powerful tools for understanding human behavior with the intent of -dear to all marketers- engaging in the art and craft of persuasion. I feel that, with rare exceptions, most of those in the peak oil “movement” are social marketers (see Erving Goffman’s masterpiece The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life) and that is why this book can help us think through “What to do now?” questions as we enter into the unknown provinces of the post-petroleum era in search of genuinely sustainable institutions. And this obtains whether you think the collapse is underway and unstoppably leads to the end of modernism and de-industrialization, or if you think there is a chance to reform current institutions. If you desire to live though this and want to work with others to do so, you are a social marketer at heart.

MM has two groundwork conceptual chapters followed by a chapter for each deep metaphor and concludes with an integrative and cautionary summary chapter. It’s best to explain briefly, rather than merely list, each deep metaphor.

  1. Balance is about equilibrium. It can refer to individual or combined states of physical, psychological, moral and social stability. It is assumed to be an innate standard. Studies of dog behavior show, for example, that they have what must be a genetically endowed set of ethics regarding –and repertoire of responses to- respect, abuse, intimidation, and being slighted.
  2. Transformation involves either substance or circumstances; and significant change involves whether the change is planned or unplanned and forced or chosen. Transformations “can be physical, social, or mental, and sometimes all three.” (Pg. 80)
  3. Journey concerns how we define –and are subject to redefine- the past, present and future. We are prone to view our lives, or portions of it, as a journey and we always interpret our past and future in terms of the present.
  4. Container is about our categories of inclusion, exclusion and boundaries. This is a powerful metaphor because it incorporates our values about social class and status. “Our memories, feelings, bodies, and social and cultural environments are understood as containers…” (Pg. 119)
  5. Connection examines the vast array and intricacies of how we relate to others and ourselves.
  6. Resource is about the consequences of acquisition –or, in the case of peak oil, de-acquisition or “downsizing.” ZZ acknowledge resources are central to our physical survival and feelings of satisfaction and well-being. They discuss Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in this context. (Pg. 143)
  7. Control refers to the sense of mastery of skill and to overcoming vulnerability on a given dimension, such as finding love, our expectations and feelings of our efficacy in daily life, work, finances, hobbies, and so on.

The final chapter covers the nuances of designing strategies to influence human motivation through these seven “giants living in the land of Metaphoria.” (Pg. 183) It contains “A Guide to Choosing the Right Deep Metaphor” to which readers should pay close attention because this is not a cookbook approach. The challenge is to discover which of these deep metaphors is most germane to your goals. In other words, you need to know which deep metaphors are primary, secondary, tertiary, not at play or dynamically related. For example, as one deep metaphor is addressed and change begins another may come into prominence or recede in importance. On the other hand, one deep metaphor may be all you need to address. Also, strategies that mix metaphor messages may fail due to incoherence or contradiction.

I see deep metaphors as ensconced in the Kuhnian paradigm, which applies mostly to science, and Foucault’s episteme, which is more cultural in perspective. With the deep metaphor as a cross-cultural “structural universal” or feature of human thought, we need to recognize that its given content in any society is paradigm, or episteme-dependent.

Lets use the American Dream as an example of a major “content source” for the seven deep metaphors in contemporary America. For stark contrast, the American Dream is not the content source of the seven deep metaphors among the traditional hunter-gatherer Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bushmen. Simply, everyone born into each society will seek life solutions (Balance, Resources, Control, etc.) through the seven deep metaphors, but the content of these solutions –of the deep metaphors- will be radically different in each society.

The America Dream promises two basic payoffs: 1) work hard and you will be justly materially rewarded; and 2) your kids will do better materially than you, as you did better than your parents.

The sociocultural outcome of peak oil –and the related fiscal/economic crisis and Bottleneck of ecological dilemmas- is that the American Dream –which is a unifying national myth integral to current paradigmatic and epistemic stability- is being delegitimized and invalidated. We can use ZZ’s deep metaphor of Balance as an example. In a recent Rasmussen Poll only 21% of American feel the US government “Has the consent of the governed.” Further, the poll shows that a large segment of the public believes neither major party addresses the public’s concerns. This is astounding –but certainly understandable in light of failed healthcare reform and $23.7 trillion dollar financial backstopping and bailouts- and certainly further polling is needed to confirm the validity of these findings. But if grossly accurate this is an indication of a severe Balance problem. I suggest it is that but more; if peak oil is upon us it is the beginning of crisis and rupture.

While it may be too late for conventional long-term planning and risk mitigation preparation, it is never too late to start where you are. As I end this review I recall an East German professor of economics I interviewed in 1991 just after the unification of the two German states. He was a prominent Marxist and had been informed he would not receive an academic appointment in the unified Germany. I expressed sympathy and he said, “Thank you, but it is not necessary. A colleague once told me, ‘One should never regret a past that has brought one to the present.’”

References

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1959.

Kottler, Philip, and Gerald Zaltman. “Social marketing: An approach to planned social change.” Journal of Marketing, Vol. 35, July, 1971: 3-12.

Mead, George Herbert. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago, Ill., University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Rasmussen Reports. “Only 21% Say U.S. Government Has Consent of the Governed.” February 18, 2010. http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/general_politics....

Zaltman, Gerald and Lindsay Zaltman. Marketing Metaphoria: What deep metaphors reveal about the minds of consumers. Boston: Harvard Business Press. 2008.

Editorial Notes: You can find out more information about the book on its related website. -KS Related post on frames and deep metaphors by George Lakoff yesterday. -BA

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